Web and mobile development focuses on technological inclusiveness, such as across operating systems, browsers and devices. Yet, as organizations become even more digital over time, human accessibility still isn’t getting the attention it should because there’s a general lack of awareness about the issue and how best to address it.

Capital One began its journey creating its digital accessibility team in 2010 with the goal of establishing accessibility as a fundamental part of its digital delivery and providing all customers with equal access to its website and apps. Over the years, the company has expanded its digital accessibility team from one to 12, some of whom face their own digital accessibility challenges.

While Capital One has placed considerable emphasis on building accessibility into its products among developers and designers, there are also efforts at the business level to educate business leaders and lines of business as well as to provide them with self-service tools.

Without organizational involvement and the proper investments, web accessibility programs can fall short of expectations, or worse.

Why accessibility is such a big issue
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 15 percent of the world’s population lives with some sort of disability. Granted, 15 percent of any population is a minority, but when it comes to serving disabled individuals, a plain old cost-benefit analysis is inadequate. Businesses must also weigh the risks, which include possible regulatory and legal action, lost customers and damage to reputation. They should also consider the opportunities, some of which may not be apparent.

A larger problem is the general lack of awareness about web accessibility and its importance. Understandably, those who lack disabilities tend to think about them, in very simple terms, when the topic is actually complex. For example, blindness and deafness are pretty obvious, but there are many types of physical, cognitive and other types of disabilities.

Moreover, even within a single category, there tends to be a range of disabilities. For example, not everyone with auditory disabilities is deaf. They could be hard of hearing or they may have trouble processing auditory input.

“Many times, engineering and design groups don’t know exactly what digital accessibility means. Or, if they do have some awareness of what it is, they aren’t always sure how to actually implement it effectively.  That’s probably the biggest challenge,” said Mark Penicook, senior manager of accessibility at Capital One.

Where to start
If your team hasn’t started thinking about web accessibility and how that impacts your products and your customers, the time to start thinking about it (and doing something about it) is now. However, it isn’t necessarily obvious how or where such efforts should begin.

Capital One follows the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), which address a plethora of accessibility issues for web and mobile applications through the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). More broadly, the W3C develops standards for the web, including industries converging on the web such as digital publishing, TV and broadcasting, web payments, automotive and internet of things, as well as aspects such as privacy, security and internationalization.

“We preview all of the W3C standards during development to make sure they can support the accessibility needs of any user. If there’s an issue, we talk with working groups to address barriers and advance accessibility opportunities in that standard,” said Judy Brewer, director of the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative. “Additionally we develop specifications that are specific to accessibility, such as Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA).”

The W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative is updating its guidelines to increase coverage of cognitive disabilities and low vision disabilities, and placing additional emphasis on mobile.

Brewer also notes the business advantage of using tools that support the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0.

“[We have standards for] anything that can better support the more efficient production of accessible content is important, including HTML editors and WYSIWYG authoring tools, content management systems, social media, media editors and graphics editors,” said Brewer. “Businesses can more efficiently address accessibility by building it into the authoring tools that they’re using.”

The W3C WAI is also underscoring the importance of improving resources for testing, since testing website and mobile app accessibility is more difficult than testing and validating HTML, for example. The latter can be done automatically; however, the former requires a mix of automated, semi-automated and expert testing.

In addition, the W3C is coordinating with some research and development organizations and actively promoting standards harmonization so it’s easier for companies to implement accessibility.

Capital One’s four-prong approach
As the Capital One digital accessibility team has grown from one to a team of 12 employees and consultants, it has formalized an approach to ensure that web accessibility is implemented well across the organization.

“We spent a lot of time and effort looking at the way we can move accessibility further up the chain in the software development lifecycle to help our engineers, designers and product owners who are working on all of our digital properties,” said Penicook. “Number one is they have to know about accessibility, so we want to make sure that everyone’s aware of and understands our corporate standard so they can execute against that.”

Importantly, Capital One’s accessibility group is proactively addressing four issues simultaneously:

  1. Ensuring accessibility is built into the pipeline
  2. Continually monitoring and testing what’s in production
  3. Providing self-service digital accessibility training and testing tools
  4. Marketing the digital accessibility “brand,” so other parts of the organization understand what Penicook’s team does and how to find it

“There was a time when we had to do all of the testing, all of the consulting and make all of the recommendations,” said Penicook. “Self-service is about continuing this journey to enable others to be able to take on some of the responsibilities our team has been providing in the past.”

The internal efforts are complemented with external efforts that keep the group involved in the accessibility community, via conferences and websites.

“We would love it if every company made their websites and mobile applications fantastically accessible everywhere,” said Penicook. “We’re not doing this to compete more effectively against another bank or credit card company. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Implementation changes
Constantly ensuring and improving digital accessibility is a complex task, particularly given the range of assistive features that need to be provided to ensure that whatever disability a person may have does not go overlooked or is not underserved.

“Ensuring accessibility throughout the SDLC can be challenging because you need to make sure accessibility is integrated into what you’re building and that it stays integrated,” said Penicook. “When you have a small group like we do, you have to make sure that your accessibility knowledge and best practices get proliferated across work streams, lines of business and delivery channels.”

Another challenge is ensuring accessibility as technology and programming languages change.

“With all the operating systems and assistive technologies and the interplay of interactions of all of those things, practically speaking, each user has their own tech stack,” said Penicook. “There are a lot of constantly-evolving considerations that have to be made and at the same time, we’re facing pressures to release products, services, updates and functionality as rapidly as possible.”

Precious time can be saved when accessibility is addressed throughout the SDLC, starting very early in the SDLC. It’s also important that engineering, risk compliance and legal are aware of what accessibility is, why it’s important and what their specific role is in relation to it.

Think creatively
Penicook’s group has put effort into addressing temporary disabilities along with permanent ones, which is an easy point to overlook. The team also considers combinations of disabilities.

“A lot of times we talk about temporary or situational circumstances. For example, what we do to help a person who may have lost the use of a limb also equates to someone whose broken arm is in a sling or is carrying a baby with one arm,” said Penicook. “We stress inclusive and universal design so that the things we do for accessibility can also be extrapolated into temporary situations or circumstances.”

Building an organizational process takes a lot of thought at a lot of levels and the requirements vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The W3C has a policy reference page that provides the status of requirements in different locations, but increasingly finds that policies around the world are calling for use of W3C’s WCAG 2.0 as an internationally harmonized accessibility standard.

But before getting creative, make sure to get the basics right: understand accessibility, understand how it impacts customers, products and the business and develop a set of processes that ensure great digital experiences for all of your customers.